Inmate Attorneys Call for Cuts to Prison Populations

Prisoner-rights attorneys are asking a federal court to force California to reduce its prison population. Attorneys filed motions recently in two long-running lawsuits, arguing that the crowding has created cruel and unusual conditions in the state's prisons. KQED's Judy Campbell reports.

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A Justice Department report released last week finds that about one out of every 32 adults in the U.S. is in prison or jail or on probation or parole. That's a record seven million people on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. The state with the most prison inmates is California, which is having increasing trouble housing them. Prisons are running at 200 percent capacity. Inmate attorneys say the situation is dangerous and they're asking a federal court to force the state to reduce its prison population. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Judy Campbell reports.

JUDY CAMPBELL: Salinas State Prison was built to accommodate about 2,600 inmates. At the moment it holds just shy of 6,000. Nearly 200 high security inmates are housed here in a former gym. They're stacked in narrow bunks, three high, with little space between them. Robert Mattiosky(ph), serving a four-year sentence, has the middle bunk.

Mr. ROBERT MATTIOSKY (Inmate): It's like living in a coffin, in a small, confined space. It's actually like living in a box. That's the easiest way to explain it.

CAMPBELL: There's a continuous din, inmates say, that after months gets maddening. Then there's the wait for the toilets, the almost always cold showers. Prisoners' only personal space is a small box next to their bunk.

Mr. MATTIOSKY: You can't escape. You know, if you're in a bad mood, and everybody has a bad mood sometimes, there's nowhere to - nowhere to go to to be alone and escape your problem.

CAMPBELL: Keith Vineyard(ph), a mountain of a man etched with tattoos, says the constant contact with other inmates, some enemies, inevitably leads to violence. He points out that level three or high security inmates like the ones here aren't supposed to be housed in dorms, and he's willing to take on stricter punishment to get out.

Mr. KEITH VINEYARD (Inmate): I will eventually, if it comes to a position where they want to move me back to a cell, I will beat somebody up to go to the hole and transfer out of here to go to a real level three, where you can have cell housing.

CAMPBELL: California prisons are under several longstanding court orders to improve conditions. And last year, a federal court took over the entire state prison healthcare system, declaring it cruel and unusual. But nearly everyone involved says needed changes can't be made in the overstuffed prisons.

Mr. MICHAEL BEAN (Attorney): It's horrific, and it's standing in the way of any kind of constitutional level of medical/mental healthcare, humane practices.

CAMPBELL: Attorney Michael Bean is in charge of a settlement in a class action lawsuit to improve conditions for the mentally ill in prison. He says overcrowding has contributed to increasing violence, recidivism, illness and an inmate suicide rate twice the national average. In a motion to be heard this month, Bean, along with attorneys in two other long-running inmate rights suits, is asking the federal court to set a cap on California's prison population and reduce it by up to 30,000 inmates. Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa says that's a naïve approach.

Mr. BILL SESSA (California Department of Corrections): It's a myth to a degree to suggest that we can manage our population. We have to accommodate them. We can't manage how many we get.

CAMPBELL: California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has proposed several ways to accommodate the population, including building more prisons. But plans have been shot down by the legislature and by voters who've refused to approve the bonds to fund them. So recently the governor has tried to manage how many prisoners the state keeps.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (California): We have a crisis on our hands. We cannot continue looking the other way.

CAMPBELL: Schwarzenegger recently declared a state of emergency and ordered a transfer of inmates to private prisons in other states. The first inmates have been shipped off, but attorney Bean says that's just a drop in the bucket.

Mr. BEAN: Anything helps, but that is not the order of magnitude necessary to address this. He hasn't changed anything about the number of people about to be incarcerated. He hasn't made any choices about who should go to prison and who should not.

CAMPBELL: That's why prisons are full to bursting across most of the country. Few politicians want to promote a reform project that lessens prison sentences or find alternative ways to punish offenders. The inmate attorneys say California prisons may have to start facing those tough choices soon, however, if the federal courts decide this month that the state simply can't keep so many people locked up. For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell.

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